The engineering peak of adventure snowshoes, MSR’s Lightning™ Ascent top the list of snowshoes outdoor enthusiasts need to choose when it really, really matters.
The Lightning Ascents are outfitted with features that create a squad of support on snowshoes. Thus, they are one’s Claw Patrol and enable an adventurer to tackle the most challenging winter treks with high confidence.
Mountain Safety Research (MSR) launched the Lightning series back in 2011-2012. Since its release, the Lightning Ascent, a design largely influenced by climbing legend and inventor, the late Bill Forrest, has continued to surpass the competition and rise to the top of mountaineering snowshoe options.
The grip of the Lightning Ascent is unparalleled, and along with secure bindings, a muscle-relieving heel lift, durable decking, a sturdy aluminum frame, and optional extenders for increased floatation, this snowshoe is the ultimate companion, your Claw Patrol, for steep, alpine snowshoeing adventures.
Without a doubt, the feature of the MSR Lightning Ascent that genuinely shines above other snowshoes is the traction. Any snowshoer would be hard-pressed to find a snowshoe that provides a better grip than this gem.
Lifting the Lightning Ascent from their box, one begins to understand their feeling of timbre and design. The superior 360-degree traction begins with wrap-around serrated edges on the aluminum frame.
Then, to complement the edges, the Lightning Ascent includes two rows of the same grade aluminum teeth along the instep and heel of the ‘shoe for added traction.
Finally, MSR has added two red DTX, meaning “Durable Traction,” crampons for grip underneath the toes. The DTX crampons are crafted martensite steel, which is sturdy, durable, light carbon steel. The hardness of this steel is ideal for resisting any wear and tear over repeated, strenuous use in harsh environments. (Read more about why MSR uses martensite steel).
In our tests in ungroomed heavy and light snow conditions, we found no excessive slipping or sliding with steep climbs or cutting trail off timber. Furthermore, even in wet snow, the snow won’t stick to any of the teeth or crampons, preventing any annoyance along the trail.
The superior grip of the Lightning Ascent frees a snowshoer, as the Mama’s and Papa’s sang, to “go where you want to go, do what you want to do” without the fear of skidding, sliding, or worse, falling.
You own the tundra you want to cover.
In fact, Arctic explorers Eric Larsen and Ryan Waters used their Lightning Ascent snowshoes for their 53 grueling days as they reached the geographic North Pole on May 6, 2014, and set a new American speed record.
Larsen wrote about the adventure known as Last North:
“In 1995, Reinhold Messner, easily the most accomplished mountaineer of all time, called his unsuccessful attempt to reach the North Pole the horizontal Everest. The entire mass moves slowly from the pole toward Canada, the U.S., and Greenland. In fact, waking up each morning, we were usually quite distraught after checking our GPS—losing up to three miles of forward progress while we slept. It is not with the least bit of overstatement that I say reaching the pole was in large part due to our MSR gear. We could not have reached the pole without these snowshoes. With our sleds weighing nearly 320 pounds at the start, the only way we could get enough traction over the rough terrain was by using the Lightning™ Ascents. Despite taking the brunt of all our effort—bashing into ice chunks constantly—they looked nearly new at the end of our journey.”
In fall 2019, the newest addition to the Lightning Ascent was revealed – the Paragon binding, built for comfort and foot security in challenging alpine conditions. The Paragon binding features freeze-resistant straps, necessary for alpine temperatures. Also, a toe stop provides a precise fit while reducing pressure points on your foot.
When testing the Paragon binding, there was indeed no foot slippage while snowshoeing, and it was comfortable for us on our feet. A few testers, however, had mixed reviews on the ease of use of the binding. I found the straps cumbersome to use with gloves, while others found it very easy to adjust. It can be a matter of personal preference.
To fasten the binding, you’ll want to slide your foot to the top of the toe box. Then, adjust the heel strap and, finally, secure the box straps. MSR recommends a shoe size from Men 6-14 (39-48) to fit the straps. During our test, once the bindings are fastened, our feet remained secure while out on our adventure.
Before 2019, the MSR Lightning Ascent included the Posilock AT (all-terrain) bindings. The Posilock bindings feature three freeze-resistant straps to latch across the foot, along with a heel strap. Since the Posilock AT bindings do not have a toe box, it’s quite a different feel compared to the paragon binding. However, these bindings make it easy to insert boots or running shoes, all while keeping your foot secure.
Unlike the Paragon binging, straps for the Posilock AT come in separate models to fit both women’s and men’s footwear. Women’s models are 4.5W to 14W while men’s fit 4.5M to 15M. There is also the option for 18-inch straps for the Posilock AT, which may make this binding a better match for large foot sizes.
To fasten the Posilock AT, start with the middle strap and simply lift your foot to set the tab in the binding. After fixing the three straps across your foot, secure the heel strap. If any excess strap remains, attach it in the clip, which smoothly moves to where you need it.
For a comparison of all of MSR’s unique bindings, check out the following MSR video:
Muscle-Relieving Heel Lift
In addition to the grip and bindings, another excellent member of your Claw Patrol is the Ergo™ Televator heel lift. The Ergo Televator can flip-up underfoot, about mid-heel, and change a climb from vertical to more like stair steps.
The snowshoe stays on the snow, but your foot points into a steep pitch allowing the toe crampons to reach max grip. Now you can challenge long climbs that beforehand wore out calves, hamstrings, and endurance. You’ll attack with far less energy expended. When the trek encompasses long distances in steep terrain, spending less effort accomplishing it offers a key advantage to realizing the destination.
For easy use, you can use your climbing poles to yank the Ergo Televator up and pop it back down. Or, you can merely stoop with a gloved finger to maneuver it.
We tested the idea of going down smaller hills with the Televators engaged as most long climbs involve up-and-downs along the way. In one tester’s case, they just sat back on the ‘shoes and found that works swell. So, on the climb immediately following a downhill, you could just trudge on up with no stopping required. If encountering a long, long downhill, click the Televators to their rest position.
The durable decking of the Lightning Ascents, crafted from TPU (thermoplastic polyurethane) coated nylon, is waterproof and resistant to tears, wear, and low-temperatures. The decking finds 18 points of riveting to each frame, increasing hold while securing redundancy if by chance ever needed. The frame is made with 7075-T6 aluminum, which is incredibly strong and lightweight.
The combination of these materials means that this snowshoe can hold up in extremely harsh and challenging conditions. Accounts from the Arctic and Antarctic explorers prove things and situations can twist horribly wrong; using top-notch equipment provides the fundamental base to survive those challenges.
MSR knows these challenges and states, “Choosing the right materials for a product is absolutely critical to its performance and durability, and it’s a job that our product developers spend a great deal of time and energy on. That’s why, from their lightweight decks to their freeze-resistant bindings and rock-solid crampons, MSR snowshoes are made to deliver the safety, reliability, and efficiency required in the winter backcountry”.
Floatation & Modular Tails
We call it the extender, but MSR chooses the professional title of modular flotation tails. Either way, its use is the same. The tails increase the total float of the Lightning™ Ascent five inches by simply clipping on and pulling a holding tab over the back floor of the snowshoe.
In comparison to the Lightning Ascents’ unparalleled grip, the ‘shoe performed average in floatation (or the ability to keep you on top of the snow). In a recent test (winter 2020) of the 22” pair with the Paragon binding, the Lightning Ascents held up fairly well in powdery snow up to 2 feet deep. The test, at the recommended weight of 180 lbs, sank to about mid-calf without the extenders.
However, that was not the case when we first tested the 30″ Lightning Ascents back in 2013. At that time, one tester, over 200 pounds, tested the ‘shoes in 5-foot deep powder in the Arctic Circle. Unfortunately, he sank up to his waist without the extenders. When he added the modular tails, they reduced the sinking to his knees.
Since the Lightning Ascents were not designed for deep snow conditions, but technical ascents, the fact that MSR has provided an option to increase the floatation of these ‘shoes is just a bonus for those technical climbs. You can store the modular tails in your pack when not in use, so they’re always handy. There are no sharp points to rip your gear.
Then, if you find yourself suddenly in deep snow on your trek or with changing conditions, the simplicity of use for the modular tails is a lifesaver. It’s an engineering marvel with no buckles to snap or complexity to deal with at all. You just click them on, like shown in this video.
If you will be regularly breaking trail in bottomless powder (especially on flat terrain), search for a snowshoe that excels in floatation. Leave the technical treks to the Lightning Ascents.
Proper Boots Are Essential
Please be careful of low-cut shoes with this snowshoe.
The serrated edges that make the Lightning Ascents excellent on climbs can wreak havoc on your ankles if you’re not prepared. It is possible, especially for those with narrow strides, to accidentally have the edges of the frame clip your ankle or calf if you’re not wearing shoes or boots with ankle protection. That’s never fun.
So, instead, wear these snowshoes with boots equipped with sufficient ankle/lower calf protection. Or, wear gaiters over your shoes to keep your ankles happy. (Learn how to choose which gaiters are right for you).
Watch more: Snowshoeing & Footwear: What To Keep In Mind
Find Your Size
There are three lengths available for the Lightning Ascents: 22″, 25″ and 30″. These sizes offer a snowshoer unisex choices based on one’s expected weight load and personal preference.
Recommended weight loads are as follows for each size:
22″ – 180lbs (80 kg) without tails or 250 lbs (114 kg) with tails
25″ – 220 lbs (100 kg) without tails and 280 lbs (127 kg) with tails
30″ – 280 lbs (127 kg) without tails and 300 lbs (136 kg) with tails
However, please note that all weight recommendations are a guide only. The weight recommendation relates to the snowshoes’ optimal floatation (ability to float on the snow) and is not a weight limit.
Innovation At Its Finest
With all the well-thought, technical features of the Lightning Ascent, it’s clear that there’s some innovation behind them. In fact, the Lightning Ascent snowshoe is just one of MSR’s long-list of innovations.
Innovation continues to accelerate with new areas of interest and then thoughtful, clever solutions to those needs. MSR says it this way: “We are engineers, tinkerers, and passionate outdoor users–each with strong perspectives on how a product should work based on our own experiences in the wild places we love. But collectively, we believe that innovative solutions are bred by challenging convention, and that functionality, simplicity, and reliability are the governing elements of enduring design.”
For the remarkable history of MSR innovation from 1973-2007, check this list.
Outside of the snowshoe itself, read what must be the most creative snowshoe owner’s guide in the industry included with each MSR pair. The company’s creativity shows in the clever way the information literally unfolds, opens, and closes with small tabs. Easy to understand instructions presented in an organized, professional way enable one to get underway with less muss and fuss.
Overall, understanding the process occurring inside MSR’s engineering and manufacturing complex empowers you, the adventurer. When caught in blizzard conditions, for example, the confidence in your claw patrol, the knowledge of the quality and thought designed into this team, provide grains of resolute determination that just may save you. That’s where the best equipment excels.
So, with simply the best-engineered snowshoe available and options that would make a Range Rover owner envious, take to the snow in all conditions with confidence and support. The company, now with production in Ireland along with its home in Seattle, supports global snowshoeing and endurance sporting equipment.
Living the talk, and snowshoeing the walk, take the MSR hint and trek your trek with Lightning™ Ascent.
Would you buy the Lightning Ascent? If you’ve used these ‘shoes before, what has been your trekking experience? Let us know in the comments below!
MSR provided the Lightning Ascent snowshoes for testing. All views and experiences shared in the article are our own. This article was originally published on Feb 25, 2018. It was updated on July 20, 2020, to include current information and additional testing insights.
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